Thursday, April 27, 2006

Open top bus parade for FC United heroes

Source: Bury Times
By Marc Higginson

WHEN a group of disgruntled Manchester United fans decided enough was enough and set about forming a club for the fans, they wouldn't in their wildest dreams have predicted the scenes in Bury less than 12 months later.

On Saturday, however, 6,023 fans watched their FC United heroes pick up the Moore and Co Construction Solicitors North West Counties League Division Two Trophy in their inaugural season before lining the roads around Gigg Lane as the players were driven around the area in an open top bus.

It is a very long time since Bury has witnessed an occasion as big as this, and the impact FC United has had on the town of Bury cannot be underestimated.

Before the game against Great Harwood Town, a sea of red and white descended on Gigg Lane men and women, young and old to witness a slice of footballing history.

FC United appears to be a club that appeals to everybody. The carnival atmosphere is something that can only be generated by such a diverse fan-base.

Shops, pubs and chippies around Bury were all packed as supporters fuelled themselves for a day to remember.

The club's supporters have also been a lifeline for fellow teams in their league, with some clubs estimating that they have paid for three years' running costs through hosting FC United for one game.

Children were waving flags, men were singing their hearts out and the elderly ambled along with a visible spring in their step. This is how you imagine football used to be like before working class families were priced out of the game.

Kids under the age of 18 were admitted free, as the FC United board aimed to reach out to the fans of the future. The gates were thrown open to children who might not normally get to see a game of soccer, something unthinkable in the money-driven game that is professional football.

The kick-off was delayed because of crowd congestion, not a regular occurrence in football games at this level. But, the fans waited patiently for the players, the noise getting ever more deafening.

To a fan, everybody had club colours, whether it was a scarf or T-shirt. There was three stands open and very few spare seats left by the kick-off.

The FC United team was welcomed onto the pitch through a guard of honour formed by non-playing members of the squad and management team.

The game itself, ironically given the team's strong performances all season, failed to live up to the occasion as Great Harwood ended up 1-0 winners.

So the match became something of a sideshow as the United supporters enjoyed singing in the sunshine. They were even helped along by the brass band that provided the half-time entertainment.

The disappointment at losing was soon forgotten when skipper Dave Chadwick lifted the league trophy to scenes of jubilation in the stands.

And, that one moment is something that will live long in the memory of the captain, a self-confessed Manchester City fan!

"I was like a little child on Saturday morning and, to be honest, I just wanted the game to be over so I could lift that title," said Chadwick.

"Words cannot describe how I felt and it is something I could never have expected this time last season when I was delighted to be playing in front of 300 fans with my old club Prescot.

"Then, it was even scarier on the open top bus ride. I didn't know what to expect, but there were hundreds of supporters around the bus when we came out of the ground. I was gob-smacked, and every corner that we turned there seemed to be more fans. I just stood there staring. I got some video footage on my phone, but it is something I will never forget."

And, the big centre-half admitted the sheer size of FC United's fan-base took some getting used to.

"There is so much expectation and you go out wanting to put on a good show every week," admitted Chadwick.

"It did take some time to get used to the noise, because it can be deafening sometimes. It's very hard to communicate with other players on the pitch when you are playing in front of such a large crowd.

"It does work in our favour too though. I know a couple of lads who play for Ashton Town and they admitted that they couldn't sleep in the week running up to the game against us. That is the effect it can have on people. Some players at this level struggle to perform in front of such high crowds, but others raise their game because it's their cup final."

Despite being a City fan all his life, the captain also admits that playing for a team in red wasn't an issue.

"I knew Karl (Marginson, the manager) from one of my previous clubs, and when he rang me and asked me to come and skipper the club I didn't think twice," said Chadwick. Word soon got around that I was a City fan, but that wasn't a factor when I decided to join the club. I get some friendly stick about it all, but that's all part of the game. Just to be playing in front of so many fans every week is something I had to grab with both hands."

It's not all about 90 minutes every week, though. The club is becoming more and more active in the community and the players took to the pitch for the title presentation sporting T-shirts with the name of founder member Russell Delaney, who died in November after a long illness, aged 47.

Another founder member, press officer Jules Spencer reckons building relations off the pitch is as important as success on the pitch over the next year, and believes Bury provides key foundations for helping to do this.

Before Saturday's game, club bosses announced that they have agreed a deal with Bury to ground-share for the next three seasons.

"We want to increase our community work and reach out to everyone in the Manchester and Bury area," said Spencer.

"We are keen to keep encouraging children and playing our football at Gigg Lane allows us to fulfil many of our aims.

"When we decided to play our football at Bury, some eyebrows were raised. However, it was justified on Saturday when we had scope to let kids in for free. We wouldn't have been able to do something like that if we were playing at a non-league ground.

"The supporters have really taken Bury to heart and the atmosphere that we can generate there is something very special.

"I think the fans realise that we are providing cheap, affordable football for all the family and Bury is quite easy to get to from Manchester anyway. It is only 20 minutes away from Manchester on the tram after all."

From the Bury TimesProbably the biggest catalyst for success on the pitch has been manager Marginson. The former Radcliffe Boro midfielder sells fruit and veg by day, but come the weekend he has moulded FC United's talented individuals into a team.

United has had the luxury of bringing in some top-notch non-league stars, but moulding a successful unit is a test many a manager has failed in the past.

"I am pleased with the way things have gone and how quickly everyone settled down to winning matches," said Marginson.

"It is great to win the league and I'm extremely proud of the achievement. I have old men and little kids coming up to me in the street and thanking me, and I cannot begin to explain how great a feeling that gives me.

"However, there is always room for improvement and I have identified what we need for next season already. I think we have a good nucleus anyway, but we can strengthen in some areas. I know what is needed from playing at that level, and I will just continue to do my best."

Secretary of the league Geoff Wilkinson said: "FC United is unique because of the way it was formed. Most clubs start with players, then get the fans. FC United had the fans, then got the players.

"However, every team comes to a crossroads and the proof in the pudding comes with their ability to maintain and continue playing football when they are not winning things. No club wins everything, just look at the Premier League. However, they have raised the profile of non-league football and other clubs in the league have certainly benefited from their presence."

FC United are going up, and growing up!

Next stop? Moore and Co Construction Solicitors North West Counties League Division One and a clash with Ramsbottom United.